Following its decision beginning of January to evict vendors from the streets, the Harare council is now engaged in a battle with thousands of poor people who make a living by selling second hand clothes, sweets, airtime, and vegetables on the capital’s congested street pavements.
It all started on the New Year’s eve, with an almost typical health scare, when over 200 people fell sick and two were killed by typhoid, putting the authorities under pressure to find a scapegoat.
After touring the old and populous market in Mbare, a team of government ministers and officials condemned what they called the unhygienic situation prevailing there obviously exacerbated by the wet season.
Faced with the prospect of total destruction of their livelihoods in an environment where formal jobs are scarce, and the chances of getting one ever slimmer due to economic collapse, vendors are purring back at the authorities like a cornered cat.
After the government announced the ultimatum which required vendors to clear the streets in 48 hours, Samual Wadzai, the director of a pressure and interest group, Vendors’ Initiative for Social Transformation (VISET), responded in a blow-for blow fashion, calling upon government to create enough formal jobs in 48 hours.
It is all but taken for granted now that the government’s 2013 election promise to create 2.2 million jobs was an April Fool’s.
All signs are that another ugly show down in Harare between the informal traders and government is unavoidable after a recent one led to violence and skirmishes.
In June 2005, a similar campaign called Operation Murambatsvina (“remove litter” in the Shona language) like a huge broom across major towns swept away the sources of livelihoods of 700,000 people, goading the United Nations (UN) to condemn the Zimbabwe authorities for human rights abuses.
Even sternly biting the nail to abduct, assault and burn the wares of some of the vendors who resisted the growing eviction calls in 2016, it seems the government has firmly set its mind on another infamous clean-up.
While in the last few months government accused the vendors of congesting the streets, this time it blames them for a typhoid outbreak.
The battle has already entered the courts where VISET is seeking an interdict against the eviction.
This week the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) turned to the court of public opinion and solicited a public discussion through micro-blogging site Twitter, which showed many people think the authorities are being dishonest.
The Harare Council is giving the proverbial dog a bad name with a premeditated intention to hang it, they said.
While many think vendors might be a factor, they do not agree with the authorities’ solution and firmly believe the government is to blame for two reasons.
They say government is responsible for the high unemployment that has seen the population of informal traders surging like a tide.
The failure by council to repair rampant broken water and sewers systems is the real health hazard, especially given the clogged and soaked streets the result of the pounding rains and poor drainage, they also argue.
In a statement last week ZimRights gave its advice, saying that “destroying the livelihoods of the poor people can never be a just solution to the national crisis, but rather growing the economy, upgrading service delivery and democratising the national politics in order to provide opportunities and social security for all.”